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'I'm crying 'cause I get to live': ND high school player has leg amputated to remove tumor

Wahpeton sophomore Jacob Petermann getting a visit in the hospital from Rev. Dale Lagodsinki, who is the pastor of St. John's in Wahpeton, N.D. Special to Forum News Service1 / 3
Wahpeton sophomore Jacob Petermann celebrates Easter with his family in his hospital room in Minneapolis a day before his left leg is amputated to remove a cancerous tumor. Special to Forum News Service2 / 3
Jacob Petermann. Special to Forum News Service3 / 3

MINNEAPOLIS—Connie Petermann walked into the post-op room at University of Minnesota Masonic Children's hospital Monday to find her first-born son weeping. Wahpeton (N.D.) High School sophomore Jacob Petermann had warned his mother he wouldn't be able to look at what remained of his left leg after the amputation. For 40 minutes he wept.

Connie didn't know what to do. This was his fifth surgery since a cancerous tumor was found in his left leg after he broke it during warmups in a Jan. 12 boys basketball game. He had never come out of surgery like this.

She asked if he was sad, upset, in pain or couldn't look at the leg.

"No, mom," Jacob said. "I'm crying 'cause I get to live."

Jacob is not a cryer. His mother will attest to that. Connie laughed when Jacob said he didn't like the medicine because it was making him cry.

"That's not the medicine," Connie said. "That's emotion."

On Thursday, March 29, the Petermanns were told there was no more cancer in Jacob's body. Rooms 3125, 3130 and 3133 at the hospital never came close to home, regardless of how many cards and Wahpeton posters filled the walls.

"I was ecstatic, excited, on a cloud," Jacob said. "It's what I've been praying for for 12 weeks. I felt like my prayers were answered."

In that moment, it felt like those rooms would be an afterthought. It felt like, after nearly three months, the Petermanns were going home.

"On Thursday we were jumping for joy," Connie said.

The varsity basketball career for 6-foot-3 Jacob was supposed to begin on Jan. 12. Four days previous, he scored 19 points in a junior varsity game, working the post, driving the lane and hitting shots from 15 feet. He was the best player on both sides of the ball, and Wahpeton head coach Jeff Ralph wanted to see how he handled the varsity game.

Ralph never got that answer, as Petermann went up for a layup in warmups and came down hard. The night would take him from a hospital in Devils Lake, N.D., to a hospital in Grand Forks, with the ambulance breaking down on the way, and airlifted to University of Minnesota Masonic Children's hospital at 3:30 a.m. There Petermann would find out he had a cancerous tumor in his broken leg and would be bedridden for the next three months, as his leg would have to be kept in traction.

That led to the joy of March 29, only to be followed by the pain of March 30. Jacob was surrounded by his mom, dad, sister and girlfriend when he was told a knee replacement had about a 65 percent chance of the cancer returning. The five held one another as the doctor said an amputation below the knee gave him about a 90 percent chance of being completely rid of the cancer.

Jacob's first thoughts went to track and basketball. He liked the idea people knew him because of sports. He enjoyed when he was asked if he played basketball because of his height and he could respond, yes.

"I felt crushed, hurt, angry, mad, sad and broken," Jacob said. "Sports, especially basketball, has been my love and passion ever since I can remember. It was just a huge part of my life. My mom was a basketball player and her team won state. I wanted to do the same."

In the months of listening to the stories of the people in the rooms near Jacob's, which Connie referred to as "around the block," she was aware losing a limb was a possibility.

It was better than losing Jacob.

"We weren't losing a limb. We were gaining a life," Connie said. "That's just what we looked at when he sat for a couple days and let it sink in. When we got sad, we put it in perspective. Some people with cancer don't get this option. We feel very fortunate. Many cancer patients would've given an arm and a leg to stay with their families. We're very grateful we get to keep him."

Easter for the Petermanns is usually either at Connie's house or her mom's house in Wahpeton or her aunt's house an hour north in Fargo. All them came to Jacob's hospital room on Sunday. Her sister brought hors d'oeuvres, which is Jacob's favorite part. The only thing that was missing was Uncle Jerry's Easter egg hunt.

But just like with Jacob's leg, which would be amputated the next day, the Petermann's weren't thinking about what was missing on Easter.

"It was about what we had in front of us," Connie said.

Jacob is expected to have three weeks of recovery before he can head back home to Wahpeton. He'll have another round of chemotherapy for three or four months, but can travel back and forth for it. Eventually, he'll get fitted for a prosthetic leg.

Back home, more than $20,000 has been raised for the Jacob Petermann Benefit fund at Bremer Bank in Wahpeton. A GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $13,000. Communities all around Wahpeton have raised money for Jacob. The nurses at the hospital said usually the cards and visitors stop coming for long-term patients.

It hasn't stopped for Jacob.

Ralph was there on March 24, on the verge of tears when he saw him, but Jacob's joy on his face changed all that.

"I only wish I was as strong as he is," Ralph said.

Even two of the nurses that finished their shift at 7 p.m. stuck around until 10 p.m. Monday to see Jacob when he got back from surgery. All 10 nurses were in the room when he got back.

"He has such a connection with people," Connie said. "The support has been our spirit lifter. It's such a blessing to be where we're from."

On Jan. 12, the varsity basketball career for Jacob was supposed to begin. Three months later, he's happy his life didn't end.

"I'm very grateful that I had a chance to have surgery," Jacob said. "I felt sad that I'm not the same physically, but I get a chance to have a life and be with my friends and family. I get to live."

Chris Murphy

Chris Murphy is a sports reporter for the Forum. He's covered high school and college sports in Chicago, North Dakota and Minnesota since 2009 and, for some reason, has been given awards for doing so.

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